Though artistically pleasing, icicles can wreak havoc

Like fine china and crystal glassware, icicles are lovely to look at but must be handled with care.
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It’s midwinter, and icicles, from puny to grand, are dangling precariously from the eaves of many homes across the Capital Region.

Wildly fluctuating temperatures contribute to the melt-and-freeze cycle of the hanging ice sculptures. Perhaps most incredible are the icicles that grow long enough to touch the ground, at which time they fall under the category of ice columns.

Like fine china and crystal glassware, icicles are lovely to look at but must be handled with care. In fact, according to the pros, they shouldn’t be handled by homeowners at all.

Most people have a sense that rows of icicles along a roofline signal poor insulation, but to professional builders, they’re a telltale symptom of several maladies.

“When I drive around and see icicles on houses, I know right off the bat they have heat escaping through the attic, which means the attic isn’t properly insulated,” Jeff Thomas, president and founder of Weather Guard Roofing in Albany and Schenectady said. “You want the warm air in an attic to be ventilated back down to living areas, not out through the roof.”

Thomas said icicles also indicate the home wasn’t built with an ice and water shield membrane beneath the shingles. Most new homes are equipped with the shield when the roof is being built, but older homes aren’t likely to have the new technology.

Case in point is the 1800s farmstead owned by Kate and Neil Wright of Malta. The lovingly-restored historic home is illuminated at night by old-fashioned white candles in the windows, reflected by one of the larger collections of icicles in the Capital Region.

“I love our icicles; I think they go with our house,” Kate Wright said. “My husband and I are both in the art field in our line of work, so we appreciate beautiful things.”

The couple bought the house four years ago, after it was fully refurbished inside and out by a carpenter who lived there.

The work included adding new windows and a new roof to the 11⁄2- story house, but that hasn’t deterred water from seeping down to solidify into rows of icicles along the eaves.

“I think icicles make the house look like a little chalet,” Kate Wright said. “It looks very wintry and quaint.”

Kate Wright admitted she sometimes knocks down an icicle or two when they block her front door but otherwise leaves them to their natural glory.

Raking the snow

For people not appreciative of the aesthetics of hanging ice, there are many means of keeping the spikes of winter precipitation at bay.

u Most of them involve removing rooftop snow using snow rakes before icicles develop. There are snow rakes made of galvanized steel, rakes with softer brushes said to ward off shingle damage, and varieties equipped with a sharp tip said to shear away snow accumulation. Rakes can be outfitted with extensions to reach up to 30 feet.

u There are snow-melting tablets resembling chlorine cubes tossed into a swimming pool, purported to melt one square-foot of snow per cube.

u There are heating coils that, according to ads, work best when laid out in a zigzag pattern, but here’s the rub on this strategy: the coils must be laid beneath the snow before it builds up.

Local hardware stores are raking in money from brisk sales of snow rakes, bolstered by the continuous snowfall this winter.

“We sell out of them, but we have a good supplier,” Tim Bachand, owner of Burnt Hills Hardware said. “When we get these back-to-back storms, people come in asking for them.”

Bachand, who used the tool effectively to maintain a snow-free roof when he lived in an older home, said the trick is removing the snow before it begins to build up and freeze over.

“You can’t wait until there’s been a bunch of storms, because then an ice dam forms,” Bachand said.

The rakes Bachand sells snap apart and can be extended in the same way a swimming pool skimmer can be shortened or elongated. That’s a handy design feature for people driving to a store to buy a snow rake, then loading it into their car to take it home.

“You need to be able to unsnap them to fit them in the car,” Bachand said.

Risky proposition?

Bachand stressed he doesn’t give instructions for using the rakes to his customers. “It’s a ‘use at your own risk’ product,” Bachand said. “You need to stand on the ground only to use them.”

Risks associated with improperly using the rakes are many, according to roofers.

“People lean out their windows or, even worse, put up an aluminum ladder in the snow and climb up,” Thomas said. “And if they’re using a rake or shovel to knock down the icicles themselves, it could cause a chain reaction of bad things. I tell people not to do it, but if they do, stand way back and wear a hard hat.”

Thomas said knocking down icicles can also cause a dangerous avalanche of heavy water-laden snow and ice.

“I’ve heard of people who hit the ice with a hammer — doing this could even break your roof shingles,” Thomas said.

Aside from the stop-gap measures, there are more permanent fixes to the winter phenomenon, but most come with higher price tags than a $39.99 snow rake. Those options include having permanent heat coils professionally installed, tearing out and replacing the insulation in the attic, adding large fans in the attic for proper ventilation, or pulling up roof shingles to have a permanent heat shield installed. But look at it this way: an investment in an improved roof and better attic insulation will save you money in heating bills over the long run.

Or, you can just steer clear of icicles and enjoy them until the spring thaw.

“I think they enhance our house,” Kate Wright said. “It’s one perk of winter.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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